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Are the provinces and territories holding themselves accountable for climate action?

Some governments have relatively strong climate accountability laws, some have weaker ones, and a few have none at all.

With great power should come great accountability. 

In simple terms, that is the rationale behind climate accountability laws. These laws require governments to show how they will deliver on their climate goals. They establish targets, governance structures, and planning processes, and require regular reports on progress.

In December, as part of Canada’s climate accountability law, the federal government published its first-ever progress report on Canada’s climate plan (and the Canadian Climate Institute responded with its own evaluation). 

The federal government was not alone: in the past year, several Canadian provinces and territories issued reports on their own climate progress, including British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Yukon.

Provincial and territorial climate accountability matters. These governments have the primary responsibility for crucial policy areas—including electricity and land use—and every order of government helps finance and communicate about climate action. The more that governments are aligned, the smoother Canada’s path toward its goals. 

But climate accountability in Canada is uneven. No two provinces and territories approach accountability the same way, and the systems that do exist are of varying strength.

Seven provinces and territories have a climate accountability law

In recent years, more provinces and territories have adopted accountability laws. There are seven in place across the country today, excluding the federal law. 

These laws differ in their details but are alike in concept. At a minimum, each one requires the government to set emissions reduction targets, establish an action plan to meet the target, and report regularly on its progress.

Five provinces and territories effectively do not have accountability laws. 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, the government has no law at all. 

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the provinces have laws, but these laws say only that the government may set targets and report on them, not that it must. As it happens, neither province has chosen to set a target. Together with Nunavut, these governments are the only ones in Canada without any emissions reduction targets before 2050.

There is also one province that has a partial accountability law. Ontario’s relevant law says the province has to set an emissions reduction target, make a plan, and publish progress reports—but the law doesn’t say when. Ontario has set a target and published a plan, but its progress reports have come irregularly, and it is unclear how much of the plan is still in effect.

However, the fact that there are seven sub-national accountability laws in Canada is still progress; in 2020, only three provinces had them.

Canada’s accountability laws are of varying quality

Climate accountability laws are not all created equal. In a report entitled Marking the Way, the Canadian Climate Institute outlined best practices for climate accountability that can be used to assess the quality of individual accountability laws.

On that score, the accountability laws in Canada are a mixed picture. Some meet nearly all the best practices, while others barely qualify (a selection of best practices is shown in Figure 2).

Every one of these best practices matters, but independent expert advice is particularly valuable because it helps to make climate plans more robust. In the best cases, accountability laws also require an independent assessment of government reports, increasing transparency and encouraging governments to produce rigorous, credible work.

However, this is also one of the weaker areas in provincial and territorial climate accountability. No provincial or territorial law requires an independent body to assess their climate plans or progress reports, although four have independent advisory bodies that provide a range of advice. In contrast, the federal accountability law follows best practice, establishing an advisory body and requiring the independent Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development to assess Canada’s progress toward its targets.

In other cases, provinces have demonstrated leadership in adopting best practices. 

Notably, PEI goes beyond any other government in Canada in establishing climate change as a whole-of-government priority. Its Net-Zero Carbon Act makes it a duty of the government to adopt policies that are aligned with climate goals and requires “sustainable prosperity”—a concept that encompasses environmental stewardship—to be included in the mandate of every department.

In Nova Scotia, the provincial climate accountability law embodies best practice in another way, setting climate goals that cover mitigation, adaptation, and clean growth. Likewise, British Columbia’s climate law requires the government to report annually on its adaptation measures and produce climate risk assessments every five years.

Various governments put their long-term net zero targets into law, along with their near-term emissions reduction goals. The federal government, Nova Scotia, PEI, and Yukon all have net zero targets embedded in law, while B.C. and Quebec have committed to do the same.

Climate accountability even exists at the municipal level in Canada. Toronto, for example, has proposed an accountability system that embodies several best practices from Marking the Way.

All governments should be held accountable for climate action

Accountability laws need not be uniform to be useful. Federal, provincial, and territorial governments have different resources and responsibilities, so it’s fair that their accountability processes look different. But all governments should hold themselves accountable, and there are clear best practices for them to follow.

Fortunately, the trends across the country are pointing in a positive direction. Today, there are more and better accountability laws in Canada compared to just a few years ago. That race to the top should continue.

Ross Linden-Fraser is a Senior Research Associate at the Canadian Climate Institute